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Augment Minds 2021

Published 01 August 2021 at Yours, Kewbish. 2075 words. Subscribe via RSS.


Introduction

Last weekend, absentmindedly scrolling through r/Zettelkasten, I stumbled upon a post for Augment Minds 2021, an unconference dedicated to discussing the development and design of tools for thought. Taking a quick look through the listed speakers - names like Maggie Appleton, Adam Wiggins, and Linus Lee, along with Slim Lim, Regina Ponciano, and Jungwon Byun (also known as a significant subset of the people I like to keep up with on Twitter) - I decided to attend. It was a spontaneous decision, but one that I’m happy with - that Sunday was absolutely amazing1.

Augment Minds was an unconference that focused directly on these facets of tools for thought, which was something that I hadn’t heard of or personally participated in before. Running for a few hours early Sunday morning, it was organized by Psionica, an indie collective striving to innovate on tools for extending and facilitating thought. Psionica has some incredible projects around the ideas of accelerating and expanding thinking with NLP and other technologies, so go check those out. There were a couple scheduled lightning speakers - all of whom are pretty prominent and well-known in the tools-for-thought space. As well, a bunch of other tools-for-thought enthusiasts, creators, and developers led breakout rooms later in the event, which was facilitated via a virtual gather.town room. It was equal parts chatty, casual, and insightful, with a couple heaping servings of inspiration and wonder added with some demos and talks. This style of “unconference”, or less formal gathering, suited itself well to the vibe of Augment Minds, and I’m very happy to have attended.

If you couldn’t tell by the myriad of related blog posts, tools for thinking, especially through the lens of CS and human-computer interactions, is something I’m pretty passionate about. Maybe it’s just the part of me that wants to relentlessly optimize my workflows, without, well, putting any actual work through them, but tweaking and exploring the online ecosystems for transformative tech like this has been something I’ve started to enjoy more and more over the past couple months. One of the reasons I wanted to attend Augment Minds was, yes, to say hi personally to people I’ve been following online for a while, but mainly to gain new perspectives and see what these influential people were thinking and working on. Tools for thought is a decently small and new field, so maybe it’s easier to become known, but it also feels like a close indie community, which is something I really appreciate. Getting to talk to other people who were similarly oddly interested in notetaking or mediums for thought was an enjoyable experience, and I’m glad that the cute audio-spatial format of Gather Town worked well here.

The other, smaller, reason I wanted to attend was to deliver a short talk of my own. I’ll talk more about this in another post, perhaps, but I thought the combination of a low-pressure, chill environment and a topic that I’m deeply into was too good to pass up. I’d also just started working on polishing and connecting my fresh new iteration of my Zettelkasten system, which was something I was already planning to share as a blog post. Writing a talk and a blog post are two entirely separate endeavours, but I managed to turn the rough outline for a post I had into a decently serviceable talk on how I use Vim, RipGrep, FZF, and Universal Ctags to maintain my plaintext notebook. It was a fun experience, and I got to discuss a bit with the participants about their thoughts on a terminal-only system like the one I have.

I’m glad I had the chance to attend such a striking conference - this post will detail more of my thoughts about it, while my next post will be a recap of my talk as well as a bit on that experience as a whole.

Lightning Talks

The only pre-scheduled part of the event was the lightning talks, which ran for maybe seven minutes each and were all grouped together at the beginning of the conference. Each talk was quite unique in subject material, and each definitely has key takeaways that I found novel.

In order of presentation:

I stopped by some other talks, such as Flancian’s demonstration of Agora, which I thought was really innovative - both technically or structurally with the pulling, pushing, and stoa features, and socially, with the collective knowledge base system. I’ve spent a bit of time clicking around, and it seems full-featured and very well designed. I also popped into Adam Wiggin’s discussion on a research mindset - I found centering the discussion on mindset and attitude interesting, since most of the time ‘research’ gets put more into the materialistic or accomplishment-heavy point of view. With Paul Bricman’s talk on what’s beyond knowledge graphs, I found a lot of similarities to Linus’s recent posts about append-only notetaking, which is a philosophy I agree with. I haven’t really found the use-case to implement completely append-only notes (I can view enough history over time with Git), but Paul’s points about timestamps, addressing, and linking are all parts of my notetaking system that I still want to explore and improve on. I haven’t had the opportunity to go through any recordings (if available) at the moment, but I’m sure the other talks were just as insightful as the ones I attended in Gather.

Note: I’ll update this section with links to the recordings as soon as they’re made available, and fill in or add to my thoughts on a couple of the lightning talks that I missed, so check back in a bit. In the meantime, here’s a link to the currently uploaded recordings. If something’s updated recently and I haven’t added a link yet, let me know.

Vibes and Energy

Another thing I really liked about the conference was the buzz, almost, that filled the main rooms. In a way, it was technically audio buzz - Gather has a spatial audio feature that lets you listen in on muffled nearby conversations - but it was also a very bright atmosphere. It was exciting to see all the innovative and explorative ways people were thinking about how to express their own thinking. With software demos like the Agora I mentioned above, and people sharing their own digital gardens, I got to investigate several new ways of managing thought. Talking with others about creating our own Zettelkasten systems and notetaking workflows was an eye-opening experience, and even though I generally tend away from socializing, I found it pretty fun to meet all these new people. There’s a certain aesthetic, I guess, that comes form having so many like-minded people interested in a topic all crammed into a space chatting. The choice of Gather as a meeting platform really helped to amplify this casual, collaborative environment, and I think more conferences and meetings should consider similar platforms for their own events.

Conclusion

If I had to pick a favourite part of the entire event, I’d probably say getting to meet all these people in a very chill, casual space. It was a great opportunity to finally say hi and speak to people in the space that I’d been quietly following along with for a while, and collecting handfuls of new handles to follow was also fun. On the other hand, a small thing I’d maybe give as feedback to the organizers would be to structure, or at least label, the downtime between scheduling and organizing people into rooms and the actual meetings. Between events, there was some awkward quiet small talk and mingling, but that transition period could have been more clearly defined. But that’s a small thing - the event was well-organized and streamlined, and I’d definitely recommend it to friends.

In terms of takeaways and inspirations, I saw the entire unconference as a clear sign that personal knowledge management and interfaces for thought are growing and thriving fields. I saw a very widespread list of topics in the breakout schedule, and there’s an aspect of the space for everyone to explore. I’d like to look more into the open source ecosystems and networks or collectives of people around tools for thought - I saw the Flancia Collective mentioned, as well as Ink and Switch, and of course, the organizing Psionica group. In the future, I’d like to also give more lightning talks and attend more conferences in general. Speaking really isn’t all that scary, and I genuinely like the process of coming up with a presentation and sharing knowledge with others (even if it’s spedran the day before the conference, but oh well). As well, I was very pleasantly surprised with how many new ideas were sparked from this unconference, so I’d like to go attend more in the future - I have my eye on a couple further in the future.

I’m just waiting for recordings to come out before I write up a text version of my talk, and share the video of my actual session. Near the end of my presentation, I was talking with someone about my tools and why I chose them, and I got a great RG x FZF plugin recommendation, which is something I’d like to look into before I finalize the post. As well, I realized after the fact that several of the commands I shared in my presentation could be cleaned up quite a bit, so I’ll be taking the time to do that. Some ways I’m implementing notebook functionality aren’t actually best practices, but oh well - you live and you learn. I’m excited to finally show off my system in a post - working on it has been a goal of mine for a while now, and I’m happy I finally got to it. If you’re also into nerding out about knowledge management, check back in a week or two - hopefully, I’ll have posted that article by then.


  1. Sunday was also the kickoff event for the Summer Research School in Bulgaria, though I’m participating virtually, 10 hours away. It’s been a super fun program so far with plenty of challenging maths and CS to wrap my head around. The mentors, counsellors, and other students have been absolutely iconic so far, and I’m looking forward to getting to know them and my research topic better. ↩︎

- Yours, Kewbish


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